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Failing the Progressive Quiz: a Response to Dehlin

John Dehlin wrote:

Several people have contacted me in respond to my “Oaks Fail” post to say: “If you believe in this church, then you believe in revelation and in following your leaders. Consequently, it is inappropriate for you to be speaking openly about wanting LGBTs to be more accepted in the church, supporting gay marriage, or for women to receive more responsibility in the church. Either the leaders of the church get their direction from God, or they don’t. If you choose to be a part of this church, then it’s either get in line and follow, or get out.”

My response: A quiz for you.

1) What were the conditions/environment/personalities involved in Joseph Smith receiving the Word of Wisdom revelation? Was it purely direct revelation, or at least partially a response to people and situation?

2) What were the conditions/environment/personalities involved in the 1890 Official Declaration renouncing the practice of polygamy? Was it purely direct revelation, or at least partially a response to people and situation?

3) What were the conditions/environment/personalities involved in the granting of priesthood to black males? Was it purely direct revelation, or at least partially a response to people and situation?

4) What were the conditions/environment/personalities involved in the LDS church’s changing stance regarding oral sex (first forbidding it, then rescinding that forbidding)? Was it purely direct revelation, or at least partially a response to people and situation?

5) What were the conditions/environment/personalities involved in the LDS church’s change in stance regarding LGBT people, going from a) telling LGBT people that SSA was a result of sin, b) that being LGBT was a choice/non-biological, c) that LGBT folks should “get married, not tell their spouse, and it will go away,” or d) to try reparative therapy……vs. the church’s current position ( — abandoning all of those positions? Was it purely direct revelation, or at least partially a response to people and situation?

6) Rinse and repeat with other issues like the use of contraception, women working outside of the home, apostolic denunciations of evolution, the cessation of publishing Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, etc.

7) In fact, are you aware of ANY significant changes in the church that were NOT made in response to conditions/environment/personalities ?

What is the value of continuing revelation, if it is not used….and what do you think precipitates revelation? Does it happen in a vacuum?

9) Finally, if conditions/environment/personalities can lead to change in all of these other scenarios, why couldn’t/shouldn’t it be so with gay marriage and the role of women in the church?

My responses:

1.  Of course all revelation is addressed to human beings in their situation, including particular and local features of their situation.  There would not be a revelation about tobacco use if no one were using tobacco.  It would be surprising if there were a revelation that we should, say, stop walking on water, because there’s no conceivable issue with people walking on water, as far as I know.  So, yes, divine revelation often applies to concerns people have.  So in some sense, since revelation is revelation to some people at some time and place, it can always be construed I suppose as “in response to conditions/environment/personalities.”

2. But you tend to notice revelations that you can fit onto a certain progressive grid, and beyond this you can’t think of “any significant changes.”  To be sure, the Word of Wisdom is perhaps a less-than-stirring starting point for the progressive story, but it does take us back to JS’s day at least, and to a woman’s concrete concerns, so that’s something.  But from there we’re up and running to the edifying tale of progress that goes like this:

Monogamy à Blacks receive priesthood à Oral Sex à … and of course to the great moral-political cause of the present age, the liberation and full moral recognition of “gay” sexuality.


A)  What comes next?  Surely progress cannot come to an end?  If you are sure what direction we should go in, why make us (and the prophets) wait – why not tell us where it is all supposed to lead?  What is the ultimate vision of individual fulfillment in a just society?  After the overcoming of the traditional, natural, conjugal understanding of marriage, and of  the associated preference for heterosexuality and role differentiation between the sexes, what further barriers must be toppled to reach our destination?  Where does all this lead?  Surely there must be more traditional barriers thought to be “moral” that will be revealed to be sheer, stupid, self-interested prejudice, or perhaps pathological hang-ups that limit our self-expression.  What other barriers to equal freedom and free equality need to fall? And where will this leveling of barriers lead us?  What, again, is the ultimate vision?

How else could we be further liberated?  Surely the whole church hierarchy thing would have to go eventually, no? Why be satisfied with the halfway house of a Constitutional Prophet regime, where a figurehead royalty responds to the demands of a freedom and justice-seeking people?  Why not declare the people (and why just LDS, why privilege them?) as the absolute source of progressive energy and re-envision “the prophet” as the spokesman for the people, the true voice of God?

Of course, since the people can never organize into an effective body and speak for themselves without the assistance of activists, of an avant-garde, then the liquidating of hierarchical religious authority can only mean the elevation of intellectuals who grasp the true morality of equal freedom in advance of ordinary people, who put no stock in prejudices but take only freedom (the more the better) and science as their governing values.

Or, if you and the people you lead or propose to represent cannot clearly describe the features of the brave new world to which you would lead us, then how can you know what should be next on the horizon?  How can we be sure that change is good if we cannot articulate a concrete and coherent vision of the final destiny of human beings?  Whence your confidence that you have discerned the one true direction of all progress, at once revealed and popular? You and others who follow you or think like you may not appreciate being categorized as a “Progressive,” but you so categorize yourself every time you refer to the Church as “behind” where you think it should be, or congratulate yourself for your “patience” in waiting for the Church to adopt a purer moral code, or otherwise assume a directionality in history that you can know and that our Church leaders are still learning to discern.

But as soon as this confident directionality is put in question, possibilities arise for careful thought which you don’t now seem to see. For example, why not envision the reversal of an earlier step that you now regard as progress?  How can you know in principle that, say, new conditions might call forth a revelation that would re-emphasize the distinctive roles of men and women.  In fact, I thought maybe I heard some rumblings of that in the last conference.  Can progress go “backward”?  For that matter, would there be something inherently … irrational, inconceivable, in the prophets, say, starting to warn us of the consequences of taking too much control of births, of not being open enough to the gift of birth… In fact, now that I think of it, I think I’ve been hearing rumblings of such a movement in recent revelations.  Could this too portend a new and surprising “progress”?  Or is it possible that “continuing revelation” might not align itself neatly with the narrative of Progress?  Note that I’m not predicting and I’m not advocating; I’m just pointing out scenarios that could be regarded as at least as plausible as the progressive scenario.  The point is, there is no reason to assume: continuing revelation (openness to change) = openness to change favored by progressives.

As to substance, I will just note that the man/woman/posterity thing seems to be a pretty deep ground of LDS doctrine and sensibility.  Mother in Heaven, for example?  Do you really think this cosmic vision in which sexual difference is constitutive of eternity can be adapted progressively to include Gay Parent in Heaven, or Free Gay Relationship in Heaven or whatever, and the result could still be called “Mormon” in some meaningful sense?

Of course the political/legal question is a distinct, prudential question – but not completely separate from the moral/religious question.  Various conference talks I thought were quite firm yet careful on how these are distinct but not separate questions.  We have a moral and religious duty to help shape institutions and cultures to promote and facilitate true human goodness and happiness so far as is possible, that is, to provide the best environment possible for the education and exercise of moral agency.  But we also have to judge prudently what constructive action is possible in a given political sphere, and what is not.  (This, by the way, might help to address some questions raised by Steve Evans in reply to Elder Oaks at BCC.)

B) Are there really no other revelations to notice besides those in your inventory?  Were the temple ordinances first introduced as a response to popular entreaties?  But perhaps this hardly matters, since it is hard to see how they contribute to our “progress” in freedom and equality. And what about something like, say, the infamous Correlation, a reform of church government that has made possible the growth of a truly unified world-wide church?  Or is that a bad thing, and so doesn’t count, doesn’t fit in the story of progressive revelation?

And how about a little thing called the Family Proclamation?  Was this a response to a popular movement for freedom and equality, led by morally advanced intellectuals?  If not, then I don’t suppose it fits in your narrative of prophecy responding to social conditions.  Anyway, it has been explained to me that the Proclamation is not really canonical, therefore not really revelation, just a passing nuisance from the standpoint of progress – unlike the notable signposts of progress you name such as the permission of Oral Sex (I missed that announcement, by the way) and the downgrading of a popular book called Mormon Doctrine.

My reply to your quiz is vigorous because I think it is important to confront plainly the assumptions behind your quiz that you and many of your followers do not seem to be aware of, and thus to hold much too confidently.  Some will not like my forthright tone, but it is always hard to appreciate the tone of someone who is confronting cherished assumptions that are very hard to put into question.  I grant at the outset that there is no way to decide between our perspectives based upon pure and simple logic.  There are sensibilities and understandings of purpose and meaning that separate us, and there is no sequence of pure reasoning that can resolve what divides us.  I have little hope of finding a sympathetic hearing for my fundamental spiritual premises, since you can dismiss them a priori as casually (at least) as you do the entreaties of Elder Oaks and other General Authorities who have just addressed us.  If you demand that the teachings of current prophets and apostles meet the test of your apparently unquestioned moral-political commitments, then it is no surprise that they continue to fail to impress you, and so my arguments are likely to impress you even less – unless, that is, you should be willing to question the fundamental story-line of Progress defined as the gradual overcoming of all restraints and norms that hinder equal freedom and free equality.

My hope is that reasoning can be of some help by calling attention to assumptions that frame our narratives and our arguments.  I have tried to contribute to such an excavation of firmly embedded assumptions.  My whole point is to invite you and your followers to reconsider whether this assumption provides an adequate ground to justify dismissing the counsel of Church authorities that contradicts your idea of progress.

If you should choose to reconsider this dismissal, you might even find that very reasonable arguments can be adduced in favor of many of the non-progressive views that inform our authorities’ counsel.

But that’s another argument.

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